Dada Land

Review: Philipp Blom, ‘Fracture: Life and Culture in the West: 1918-1938’

Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (screenshot)

Perhaps no poem captures the cultural and spiritual crisis facing the West in the aftermath of World War I better than "The Second Coming." Although it is often tossed around thoughtlessly in modern pop culture, Yeats’s short poem evokes not only the anxiety of modernity—"the falcon cannot hear the falconer / Things fall apart"—but also the sense that something terrible and inevitable is emerging:

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Something is coming, almost without a will of its own, as if foreordained, like the Second Coming of Christ—but not to bring redemption. Yeats wrote the poem in 1919, and it is difficult today to read the poem’s famous last lines, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" without a imposed sense of concrete foreboding: another war is coming, Hitler and Stalin are coming, the Holocaust and the gulags are coming.

Of course, "The Second Coming" is about more than regimes and ideologies. World War I killed off a generation of European men, toppled four empires, and redrew the maps of Europe and the Middle East—but it also shattered Europe’s confidence as a cultural force. The scale of the destruction unleashed on the Western front undermined faith in reason and the confident morality that had sustained European civilization for centuries. The horrors of the trenches, where industrialized warfare reduced men to passive victims of machines that rained murder from miles away, weakened the idea of the individual hero.

Even so, the anxiety Yeats evokes in "The Second Coming" had been building since long before the war. In 1917, the German poet and Dadaist Hugo Ball declared in his poem "Kandinsky"—"God is dead. A world has collapsed. I am dynamite. World history has broken into two halves. There is a time before me. And a time after me.… An era collapses. A thousand-year culture collapses… The world reveals itself to be a blind battle of forces unbound." Here, Ball is describing the world prior to 1914. He’s not describing the Western Front, but the industrialization of modern cities.

It is fitting that Philipp Blom makes use of Ball’s poem in his new book Fracture,a chronicle of cultural change in the West during the interwar period. The mention comes early in the book, when Blom restates a thesis he laid out in a previous book about the pre-war years: the spiritual anxiety and sense of rupture in the West were present long before 1914. Writes Blom: "Even at the turn of the twentieth century, metropolitan areas had already become battlegrounds of modernity, about which [Ball] could remark: ‘The world became monstrous, uncanny, the relationship with reason and convention, the yardstick vanished… The science of electrons caused a strange vibration in all surfaces, lines and forms.’"

Far from causing this sense of estrangement and dislocation, Blom argues the outbreak of war offered a promise of relief from it. The war was a chance for individual men, whom the industrialized city had reduced to mere cogs in a machine, to reclaim their honor by performing courageous deeds on the battlefield. Romantic ideals of patriotism and honor could mean something again. Official propaganda of course played on these hopes and fears, but could not change the reality of what soldiers at the front experienced. Far from offering relief from the indifference of the modern city, industrialized warfare intensified the sense that men were cogs and, even worse, that they no could no longer control the machines they had invented.

Post-war art reflected this realization. In Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang explores the fear that soulless technology would eventually rule society, a fear that Blom rightly notes was common among German right-wing thinkers and politicians. In the film, set "some hundred years in the future," society is split between the haves and have-nots. The former live on the highest levels of a futurist city of multilevel roads and planes floating between skyscrapers, the latter as slaves in dim catacombs, operating the giant machines that run the city.

Eventually the workers, led by the ruthless dictator’s son, rise up and revolt. Blom writes:

The oppressed workers were waiting for a leader, a Führer, to rise up against the injustice of their lot… The public is invited to sympathize with their quest and with the idea that only a charismatic figure can save the day and rescue the people from the dictatorship of a decadent elite.

The film captures the ambivalence toward industrialization and modernity that many Europeans felt. That unease would give rise to different artistic movements across the continent, from Bauhaus in Germany to the surrealists in Paris. For all their heterogeneity, these movements generally arose as an aesthetic rejection of bourgeois morality and traditions. Yet, as Blom ably chronicles, the rejection would inexorably become political, as in the case of André Breton and the Surrealists. A medical intern during the war and an assistant doctor in a psychiatric ward after it, Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Breton’s surrealism was essentially a rejection of bourgeois reality and artistic realism. "What the world needed, he thought, was a disciplined movement," writes Blom, "a collective assault on bourgeois culture in an effort to subvert and finally topple it altogether."

It should come as no surprise that by 1925 Breton would declare: "Communism alone among organized systems permits the accomplishment of the greatest social transformation. Good or mediocre in itself, defensible or not from a moral point of view, how can we forget its role as the instrument by which ancient buildings are destroyed?" This pattern was repeated throughout Europe during the interwar years. Perversely, the first World War spurred many Europeans like Breton to seek a way to use the violence it had unleashed to transform liberal society.

Blom’s fine book serves as useful guide to this period. It is marred only by his epilogue, in which he oddly conflates Europe’s turn toward totalitarian ideologies in the 1920s and 30s with contemporary America’s faith in markets. Blom claims, contrary to the best evidence, that the 2008-09 recession was a result of market failure, which in turn shattered our collective faith in capitalism: "The idea of the infallible market has become a travesty, and the gospel of growth and the myth of meritocracy have collapsed in the minds of many of our contemporaries."

He’s better when he sticks to historical analysis. Blom provides an unsettling account of how the surrealists, the Dadaists, the communists, and the fascists rejected the Enlightenment and re-shaped society according to ideology, with terrifying results, and reminds us to be discerning about how political ideology can undermine a free culture.